Open casting

Danger! This is a long one, covering a day and a half of movie-making.

Last night when I got back from the Tractor Bar it was time to go to open casting. While the previous time we had an allocated block just for us, this time people were reading for all the movies. I was the only writer there. All the other movies were represented by the producers or not represented at all – the decision will be made based on recorded performances. Not our movie, baby. I was there, Bonnie was there, and Luther was there. Rudolph was there much of the time as well. It’s not even my presence pushing the crew to be there, although that must help. In the words of Luther, “I gotta be there so I can tell you you’re full of crap later.” I love that attitude.

Bonnie had arranged for the people she thought most worth seeing to come in the evening, so I showed up at 7 p.m, without covering as much road nearby as I had hoped. The studio was sweltering, and I worked on storyboards and script revisions while an endless stream of actors reading for other movies auditioned. (Note to self: next script make sure there’s a part for a babe.)

An hour passed, and another. No Pirates. No Ruthies. Although there were more representatives of Pirates in the studio than for any of the other films, they were holding the pirates to do as a batch – right at the end of the evening. It was while I was waiting that I composed a daily summary message to fuego that featured some choice language. Luckily I couldn’t send it until later.

I’m having a hard time coming up with a pseudonym for the guy who’s running the show. His actual nickname is too perfect. Still, in the interest of interest, we’ll call him Grizz. Grizz was there last night, and he’s a good guy — easy-going but on top of things. He works with Smithers, but ultimately outranks him. Grizz helped Randy cut through the bullshit and get some key crew members.

Ahhh, Smithers. More on him later.

Finally, finally, we got a couple of reads for Pirates. Good reads. Not outstanding, but solid. A couple of new takes on Ruthie. The line, “Hello, boys,” can be said a lot of ways, and each way it says a lot. I’ve heard renditions I’d never considered before, and delivered right it works. It is not always delivered well. Then again, some of the guys auditioning for Moab drifted far from the script, to the point of undermining the significance of the conversation – significance I was unaware of when fuego and I were writing the lines, but . What are you doing to my words? I wanted to cry out more than once, in true martyr-writer fashion. But I bit my lip and quietly moved on to the next candidate.

Bonnie managed to dodge much of it by going on a pizza run. It was a long pizza run, more like a pizza stroll, a pizza promenade through the park, but when she finally got back, she hadn’t missed anything.

Another of the members of the Pirate crew has shown great dedication – Luther has spent way more time at the casting sessions than was necessary, He filmed all the relevant auditions and gave me a tape of the performances tonight. I have tried, a couple of times, to hint that the effort is not really necessary, but he is enthusiastic, and I don’t want to underestimate the value of that. The dude is totally on board. I felt a little sorry for his wife, however, who also got to be baked alive for this late-night session. She’s very sweet, though shy – she calls me Mr. Jerry. Some time that night Luther promised to hook me up with some good music for Pirates.

About the music. We have several people who have expressed interest in contributing music for the movie. Some of them are actually doing it. Ages ago, last week or even earlier, I gave them a deadline. I don’t even remember what it was, but it wasn’t yet. Now that I’m here, and I see all the balls in the air, I want to hear the music yesterday.

The casting session ended and we all went home. I went to sleep. I woke up. I went for a breakfast meeting with the producer. That was today, this morning. It seems like a long time ago.

The producer had good news. We had the Director of Photography we had been trying to get. Grizz had put the squeeze on Smithers and this morning the email came in from Smithers affirming what we already knew – Doc Sarvis is our DoP. Right after that came another email. Smithers, it seems, had been sick, and he promised to be back up to speed and ready to go. At the time I thought that was a good thing.

After breakfast I did some more catching up with communications, bought some new pants, and headed off for the last of the casting. Again, there were long periods of waiting, in which I created a new shot list, modified the script a bit more, implementing changes I had already discussed with fuego, and finally watching the first scene of Sponge Bob SquarePants, the movie. It’s a live action sequence with pirates. With almost no time left I heard a really good Moab read. Really good. The scouting report is that if I like what he did, well and good, because it’s going to be hell to change his delivery. Not impossible, but tough. The good news is that his instincts are pretty close to what I wanted.

There is another actor, who was instrumental in the casting process for all the movies, who also read for the role. He was good, and here’s the thing: He’s a part-time pirate. Mostly a 1500’s pirate, before the flintlock, which apparently was the technological advance that ushered in the golden age of piracy (and here I thought is was our incomprehensible tax code). he has friends that fit our descriptions of the scurvy crew, right down to the horrible teeth, and they have their own outfits already. A gold mine to fill the Crusader. The only trouble is, that for half our shooting schedule they are going to be at the Big Pirate Ho-Down (BPH-D). if we want to use them (and I’m thinking we’d be silly not to), we will have to arrange shooting so that scenes with the full crew are shot on the last two days, and on Monday they’re likely to be hung over, if not still drunk. Some of them may even have jobs to get back to. It’s crazy, but people still do that.

After I heard this potential Moab I was out in the hall cooling off and discussing props with Bonnie. Smithers was in the hallway chatting up a strikingly attractive actress here to read for another film (see note to self above). He seemed to be doing all right but he exercised the good judgement to give her the space she needed to practice for her role. Now that I think back, it was my next visit to the cool air of the hall for another chat with Bonnie when Smithers approached me.

“Oh, you’re the ones who want a b-camera,” he said as if he had just made the connection. “Grizz and I have ben talking. It’s going to cause you trouble to have two cameras. You just don’t have enough tape. We’re not sure we’re going to allow to cameras and right now I’m inclined to say no.”

Let’s just say right here that I don’t know crap about filmmaking, but fuego has been in more that one situation where resources are strictly limited. To give Smithers some credit, he may know more about what it takes to get a student crew and semi-pro actors into place and hitting their marks. Setups may just take longer and it may require more takes. Longer setups is an argument in favor of a second camera, more takes means eating up more tape. A mistake with two cameras running costs twice as much. So I can see where he’s coming from.

But really, in the end, that’s not his problem. It’s our problem, and we are intent on bringing the right people on board to make the shoot go smoothly. For reasons I don’t fully understand, having an experienced script supervisor can save valuable feet, and so Rudolph went and found us one. I have no way to judge, but I think we’ve managed to tap into some pretty high-level local talent. The script is undeniably a factor, but most of the credit goes to Rudolph. He’s not afraid to ask for things.

Case in point: after breakfast we were driving back to his place. We passed a neighbor’s house. they had a convertible parked out in front – no, wait, two convertibles, including a giant Lincoln ragtop with suicide doors. Sweeeet. Rudy parked and we knocked on the door until he flushed out the owner. It’s not a done deal – far from it – but the guy agreed in principle to let us use his car in the movie. There are logistical difficulties; he wants some he trusts there babysitting it and he’ll be out of town during the shoot, but Dang! Rudy just up and knocks on people’s doors when they have something he needs. That’s what makes him the producer and me the flunky.

So, where was I? Right. Smithers was imposing a rule on us to protect us from ourselves. I used the straw man defense: “Then you and Grizz need to get on the phone with my brother and work it out, because he’s confident that he can do it and get a better movie with two cameras. This is what he does for a living.” Just then someone went in to read for Pirates, so I ducked away and left it at that.

To Smither’s credit, it could have ended on that confrontational note, and were it left to me it would have been. Instead, he went out of his way to strike up a conversation about pirates, talk like a pirate day, and a big project he had worked on that was pirate-related. So there was a subtext that he was also a pro and had been around the block, but mostly it was looking for common ground, and an honest interest in the subject matter. So any time I sound scornful of Smithers, don’t forget that he really is trying to do the right thing, and he’s working to forge a friendly relationship.

That said, I would be able to do a lot better with him if he was a little more straight about the reasons for his decisions. I don’t really think he was trying to protect the crew of Pirates from failure; I think he was trying to keep one crew from completely tipping the festival. It’s an odd thing. I don’t care if we win the festival or not; what I want is the best possible movie as a result. A movie with legs, that will hold up in other venues. He wants a good festival. Sure, he wants to see movies get out and increase the stature of the shootout, but at the same time he doesn’t want it to become a money-spending contest.

And there it is. We’re trying to become the Yankees of the Duke City shootout, and he doesn’t want there to be a Yankees. I can’t blame him. I hate the Yankees.

But in the end I’m only guessing at his motivation, because he has never told me where he’s coming from. I want to ask him, but I have to do it in such a way so as not to hand him an answer. I composed an email tonight. I said that if we could be frank and understand where each was coming from, we would much better be able to work together. I was blunt. I said “I want to make the best movie I possibly can and that means I will augment the festival’s resources in any way that will result in a better outcome.” I used I instead of we because if ire does fall I want it focussed on me. I have a strange combination of power and uselessness. On the one hand, none of the other writers are participating actively in this stage of the production. On the other, I don’t know crap. But I can make a decision and make it stick.

I did not send the message to Smithers. I sent it to fuego and Rudolph, and got very different reactions. Rudolph, who has been dealing with this guy longer than I have, was supportive. fuego phoned from eight time zones away to solicit restraint. fuego’s right – he doesn’t want me pooping in the pool before he’s even on the diving board. In the end, though, this conversation will have to happen. Only after Smithers lays out what the real reasons for his decisions are will we be able to move forward with confidence.

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